Italian For Beginners
A Film Directed and Written by Lone Scherfig

Italian For Beginners, the latest film certified by the Dogme '95 group of film makers to be released in the US is a bold and charming departure from what has come before. It begins to realize a new aspect of the promise Dogme '95's self-imposed discipline may offer to the art of film. And beyond matters of theory and principal, it presents itself as one of the four or five best films of the past few years.

While earlier Dogme films, including Lars von Trier's Idiots, Thomas Vinterberg's Festen and Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey Boy have dealt with the darker and more dysfunctional sides of human personality and a generally bleak view of existence, Italian For Beginners is an optimistic and sympathetic story that affirms and honors the power of human beings to support and help one another, to give and receive love.

Director Lone Scherfig (the first woman to direct a Dogme '95 certified film) remains uncredited in the titles, in a gesture that speaks to the movement's recognition of film as a collaborative rather than hierarchical process. She also wrote the script, which contribution is acknowledged. The film she and her team have made uses Dogme principals in a fashion that is disarmingly engaging and rich in simple, homely details that make a second viewing even more rewarding that the first.

In case you haven't been following the Dogme '95 movement, which grew out of manifesto published by a group of mostly Scandinavian film-makers in Copenhagen in 1995, it is an attempt to restore a populist, realist, co-operative and direct connection among film-makers and audiences, similar to that aspired to by the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of the 1960's.

To obtain Dogme '95 certification, a film must avoid many of the conventions embraced by traditional film-making, including (among others) artificial lighting, special effects, overdubbed sound, non-ambient music, constructed sets, and a rigidly hierarchical production process. The emphasis is on a creative collaboration that uses natural lighting, ambient sound, actual locations and a mix of scripting and improvisation, to tell stories that have a spontaneous, immediate, realistic feel.

All this said, one of the most impressive things about Italian For Beginners is that it's Dogme bona fides are incidental rather than central to the film's process. The look of the film - mostly shot with hand-held digital video cameras - is exactly right for the kind of story being told, and the avoidance of a "polished" look never feels forced or artificial.

Rather, it emphasizes the intimacy and simplicity of the story being told, the personalities of the characters and their growth and transformation over the course of the narrative, while avoiding the kind of insincere emotional manipulation that is such an unfortunate hallmark of many Hollywood films and those that emulate them.

Italian For Beginners is an ensemble piece about a divers group of people in a Scandinavian city who are linked together in many ways, but whose point of intersection is an Italian language class that is part of the local adult education program. These variously damaged and confused people come together into a loose group that provides new possibilities for all of them.

The emotional center of the story is the young pastor, Andreas (Anders W. Berthelsen), new to the city, assigned temporarily to a church whose angry, curmudgeonly pastor has been suspended for taking out his rage at God over his wife's death on his staff and congregation. It is in the character of Andreas, who has recently lost his own wife, that the film's central issues of loneliness, faith, loss, courage and purpose are most directly expressed.

In preparing a sermon, he walks up and down, thinking aloud, that "We find God in compassion, in friendship, in ourselves, in the arm we slip around the waist of the beloved..." and that is very much the meditation the movie seeks to stimulate. At another point, we see him leading a Christmas service, in which the words of the Hymn suggest that we should "seek the child" in ourselves - and this affirmation of our own basic innocence, this idea of our best selves as eternally "beginners," is a further reflection the film invites us to contemplate.

Around Andreas swirls a constellation of affecting and appealing characters. Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund) is an emotionally-arrested boy/man, an insensitive, self-absorbed workaholic who has no idea that his overbearing attitude toward his customers is putting his job in jeopardy. Karen (Ann Eleonora Jorgensen) is a hairdresser who is struggling with the rapid decline of her ill, alcoholic mother. Olympia (Annette Stovelbaek) sees herself as a chronic failure, and is tyrannized by an abusive father.

Jorgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler) is a shy desk clerk at the hotel where Halvfinn's restaurant is located and where Andreas is staying, whose struggle with impotence has isolated and demoralized him. Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen) is an Italian waitress who works for Halvfinn, a stranger in the country, isolated by her foreign temperament and language, who sees past Jorgen's insecurities to the tender, loving soul inside.

What they all have in common is a basic loneliness, and a yearning to connect with others. The film traces their struggles to a point that suggests that their success in achieving such connections is, in some measure - although not assured in an artificial "happily ever after" way - at least possible, and even likely. It is a story that deals in an unassuming way with one of the greatest human problems and modestly proposes a simple approach to a "solution" in a way that is aesthetically and emotionally satisfying.

Scherfig's script is direct and effective. The dialogue, whether improvised or written, is natural and conversational rather than literary. The personalities of the characters, as revealed through their actions and statements, are consistent and believable. Scherfig treats them with respect and amusement, as well as sympathy.

The actors who embody the characters are a wonderful ensemble. Berthelsen brings a melancholy and wistfulness to Anders that manages to harmonize gracefully with a spiritual strength based as much on doubt as faith. Kaalund is bright and brash as Halvfinn, an engagingly adolescent mixture of arrogance and vulnerability. Jorgensen evokes a Karen who is determined and optimistic in spite of her fears and disappointments.

Gantzler's Mortensen combines a touching tenderness and empathy with painful self-consciousness. Jensen imbues Giulia with a grit and humor that add an edge to her sensitivity. Stovelbaek creates an Olympia who is battered and beaten by her life's experiences, but still finds the strength and courage to pursue her longing.

It is these delicate and effective characterizations that give the film its sense of depth and authenticity. The naturalistic acting combines with the gritty reality of the locations and the unpretentious, documentary-style of the handheld camera to create the sense of liveliness and unpredictability for which the Dogme group strives.

The production values of such a work have to be judged by a different standard than those of a conventional film. What the film-makers intend here is not "professionalism," "excellence of technique" or "beauty of image," but rather rawness, a sense of presence, vitality. Scherfig and her collaborators have succeeded on those terms. The action feels observed rather than filmed, and that impression reinforces the sense of its sincerity.

Italian For Beginners is the kind of film that ought to become a sleeper hit after the fashion of Waking Ned Devine. It treats profound human problems with candor, respect and humor; presents interesting, fully-developed, sympathetic characters; and offers a compassionate and hopeful vision of the struggle for love and understanding. It is a delightful, intelligent movie, and one with real substance.

That's my take on it. What's yours?